I had so much fun writing about Batman that I figured I’d leap into another cinematic universe focusing on his buddy Superman. So here we go!
This movie is considered by many a classic, but I’ve got to say that, while it has a whole lot of great things going for it, the movie feels like a Frankenstein’s Monster of themes, tones, and genres that are held together by the charm and believability of its title lead.
Apparently this film had something of a troubled production. The producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, had a hard time pinning down a creative team. Mario Puzo (who wrote The Godfather) wrote the first script, but it was a massive thing that would have ended up being a five hour film (in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Donner said that the script was so big one could “get a hernia from lifting it.”) Donner didn’t like the script, so it was rewritten several times, veering between melodramatic and overly campy with each iteration before Tom Mankiewicz did a full rewrite (though he was never given full credit because the Writer’s Guild refused, citing a technicality. Donner gave him a creative consultant credit, despite the Guild’s protests). The Puzo script never saw the light of day.
In terms of directors, the producers approached George Lucas (who was in full-on Star Wars mode at the time) and Guy Hamilton (the legendary Bond director who gave us Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man with the Golden Gun; I am SO MAD he never got to direct because he would have been incredible!). They also considered Steven Spielberg, but they waited to see how Jaws fared. When it was a smash, they asked him, but it was too late since he’d already committed to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Donner finally won out.
They filmed Superman I and II at the same time, hoping to end the first with a cliffhanger that would lead into the second, but tensions during the production and a wavering of faith on the part of the producers led them to abandon Superman II 3/4 of the way through and focus on just the first film. The cliffhanger was removed and it became a standalone picture.
The result was a massive success, partly because it was something nobody had seen before. Superheroes had been TV or comic book-bound up until that point and the effects budget (which was the biggest of any film to date) blew audiences away.
It still gets pretty good reviews from contemporary audiences. IMDb gives it a 7.3/10 and Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 93%.
If you know me, you know that I quite enjoy being something of a Hollywood iconoclast. So if this is your favorite film of all time, please take what I have to say about it with a grain of salt.
Christopher Reeve is perfect. Literally. He is everything the character needs to be and he pulls it off with such good guy earnestness (but with a believable amount of ego) that you just completely accept him in the role.
Also, he’s one of the few actors who genuinely makes it difficult to associate Clark Kent with Superman. He pitches his voice differently, holds his face differently, and moves completely different depending on which persona he’s adopting that it’s genuinely plausible that people wouldn’t associate Clark Kent with Superman. I just love him in the role.
Lois Lane is another resounding hit. Margot Kidder is the perfect foil for Clark. Se’s sassy and cynical, but with a well-covered desire to be swept up by the gentleman her well-cultivated bravado insists she doesn’t need. Her dialogue is snappy and clever and you really relate to her. It’s a shame that issues between the producers and Donner got in the way of her future with the franchise (she only gets a cameo in Superman III as a result of studio bickering, which is really sad). My only issue with her has nothing to do with the actress herself. The “musical” sequence where she and Superman are flying together is just really cringe-y, and I LOVE schmaltz! Originally, Margot Kidder was originally going to sing the sequence, but Donner decided to turn it into a dramatic reading of the song’s lyrics, delivered in voice-over, which makes it almost more cringe-y than if it had been a musical sequence. I wish they’d just left the scene to be carried by John Williams’ wonderful score.
As for the rest of the cast, this is where the script’s wildly uneven tone comes into play. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a campy comedic villain one would expect to see plotting Adam West’s Batman’s downfall, especially when joined with goofy henchfolks Otis and Miss Teschmacher. Superman’s lowest moment, when he’s trapped in the pool with the kryptonite, isn’t played with all that much drama. The music is quiet and easygoing and he’s able to convince Miss Teschmacher to free him fairly easily, and then he flies off to save everyone.
This relatively child-friendly moment is then followed up by the harrowing scene where Lois dies and Superman gives into his ego and rage and turns back time, expressly breaking one of Jor-El’s main non-interference rules. It’s dark and emotionally charged and fantastic. But it’s like these two scenes come from two different movies.
And then there’s Marlon Brando. I know everyone raves about how fabulous an actor he was and how legendary and iconic he was, but everything I read about the guy just makes me dislike him more and more. He delivers his (cue card-ed) lines with suitable gravitas and he certainly looks dramatic, but it’s like he’s starring in a totally different movie, a somber serious space opera, that doesn’t fit with much of the rest of the film.
Once Clark moves to Smallville, the tone becomes that of a 50-s era coming of age story with hints of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and John Ford Westerns before turning into a punchy Neil Simon-esque urban drama once Clark joins the Daily Planet. Even Superman and Lois’ rooftop meeting can’t decide who the audience is. At one point, she’s basically all, “Why don’t you check out my underwear with your x-ray vision, and while you’re at it, I’m curious how big–er–tall you are,” but then they take flight and it’s suddenly as wholesome as the contents of your grandmother’s bookcase.
And then there’s the scene where Superman saves a kitten from a tree and the child replies with, “Gee, mister, thanks!” with so much 1950’s sweetness that you forget that, earlier, Lois ragged on Clark because folks nowadays are too cynical to use words like “swell” in normal conversation.
This is getting really long so I’ll wrap it up quickly.
Audiences loved it, and there are a great many moments that are gorgeously iconic, and I appreciate this movie for the fun, optimistic romp that it is, but I guess I wish that it had been able to find a more cohesive tone. But I am viewing it with 20/20 hindsight. Before this, superhero films weren’t a thing. They had epic sci-fi films and they had urban dramas and they had sweeping rural coming of age stories and they had dewy musicals, but the superhero genre was confined to episodic and fairly formulaic television series and serial comic books that had no real beginning, middle, and end. It was a trailblazer.
So for that reason, I’m glad this film exists. Audience tastes regarding superhero films are extremely volatile and it’s only a very small handful of superhero films that have managed to consistently impress everyone, so the fact that this one is still very well regarded is a testament to how it speaks to people.
And it led to the fantastic Superman II, which is pretty damn swell, so it’s all good!
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week with more of…
THE KRYPTON FILES!